How Sex, Native Language, and College Major Relate to the Cognitive Strategies Used during 3-D Mental Rotation

By Li, Yingli; O'Boyle, Michael W. | The Psychological Record, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

How Sex, Native Language, and College Major Relate to the Cognitive Strategies Used during 3-D Mental Rotation


Li, Yingli, O'Boyle, Michael W., The Psychological Record


The ability to create and use effective strategies for solving visuospatial problems such as mental rotation (MR) is an important component of spatial intelligence. A number of studies (for a review, see Springer & Deutsch, 1998) have suggested an advantage in MR performance when a spatially oriented strategy is adopted (i.e., comparing whole mental/visual images in the mind's eye), in contrast with a more analytic and perhaps verbally mediated strategy (i.e., internally "talking" to oneself about the structural components of a given object that might "line up" if rotated in space, but without ever or only intermittently creating an image). Notably, a reliable sex difference favors males in performing MRs (Halpern, 2000). One possible explanation offered for this advantage is that sex differences occur in the types of strategies that males and females are more likely to (but not uniformly) engage. And further speculation suggests that this use of differential strategy may be related to sex differences in the functional organization of the brain, which in turn may bias males toward a spatially mediated MR strategy and females toward a verbally mediated MR strategy.

For example, one hypothesis is that the male brain has regions of the right hemisphere (RH), particularly the right frontal and parietal areas that are specifically dedicated to the formation and manipulation of mental images (Gill & O'Boyle, 2003). This anatomical factor may bias males toward the use of a spatial strategy when doing MR. In contrast, females, with their often reported tendency toward bilateral representation of the language faculties, may be biased toward the use of a more verbally/analytically mediated strategy when they perform the very same task. In support of such theorizing, Gill and O'Boyle (1997) found that when matching rotated circles and arcs, females showed a pattern of bilateral electroencephalographic (EEG) activity localized to the language areas in the frontal and temporal regions, whereas males exhibited EEG activity lateralized solely to the right frontal lobe, which is important for forming and manipulating mental images. Because of this differential activation of the language and the imagery regions of the brain, the authors suggested that when performing MR, females may use a verbal/analytic strategy, whereas males may use a more spatially oriented strategy.

Moore (2003), using a dual task paradigm, conducted a preliminary study to directly investigate the strategies that males and females employ during MR performance. Specifically, male and female university students performed a variation of the Vandenberg and Kuse (1978) test of mental rotation (MRT) while concurrently maintaining a verbal or a spatial memory load. Moore found that male performance during the spatial load condition was worse than in the verbal load condition, a result suggesting that the concurrent spatial task may have interfered with their use of a spatially oriented MR strategy. However, she found no significant difference in female performance as a function of concurrent load type. Her tentative interpretation of this pattern was that males were more likely to be engaged in a spatial processing strategy, as evidenced by the fact that their performance was disrupted more by a concurrent spatial than a verbal load. In contrast, females tend to rely on a combination of spatial and verbal/analytic processing strategies to solve MR problems, as evidenced by the fact that their MR performance was impaired under both the verbal and spatial concurrent load conditions.

Moody (1998) also investigated strategic differences between males and females doing MR by giving participants the aforementioned MRT along with an accompanying problem-solving strategy questionnaire. This study revealed that males were better than females at MR and that males reported using primarily a spatial strategy, whereas females reported using a verbal strategy. …

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